Sheldon Siegel is the New York Times, USA Today, and Amazon best-selling author of the critically acclaimed legal thriller series featuring San Francisco criminal defense attorneys Mike Daley and Rosie Fernandez.
Sheldon is the author of the thriller novel The Terrorist Next Door featuring Chicago homicide detectives David Gold and A.C. Battle. Sheldon’s books have been translated into a dozen languages and sold millions of copies worldwide. A native of Chicago, Sheldon earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois in Champaign in 1980 and his law degree from the University of California-Berkeley in 1983. He specializes in corporate and securities law with the San Francisco office of the international law firm of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP. Sheldon began writing his first book, SPECIAL CIRCUMSTANCES, on a laptop computer during his daily commute on the ferry from Marin County to San Francisco. A frequent speaker and sought-after teacher, Sheldon is a San Francisco Library Literary Laureate. He is a former member of the National Board of Directors and the Past President of the Northern California chapter of the Mystery Writers of America, and an active member of the International Thriller Writers and Sisters in Crime. His work has been displayed at the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley. He has been recognized as a Distinguished Alumnus of the University of Illinois and a Northern California Super Lawyer. Sheldon lives in Marin County with his wife, Linda, and a 17-year-old tabby cat named Betty. They also have twin sons named Alan and Stephen. He is a lifelong fan of the Chicago Bears, White Sox, Bulls, and Blackhawks. His twelfth Mike Daley/Rosie Fernandez story, FINAL OUT, was released on January 26, 2021. He is currently working on his next novel.
What brought you to writing? I always wanted to be a writer, but I don’t know why. I’ve discussed this with other writers, most of whom have said that it seems that there is something hot-wired into our system to try to tell stories. It’s a bit presumptuous for us to think that we have something interesting to say. I have no formal training. I studied accounting in college at the University of Illinois, and I’ve been a corporate lawyer with a big law firm in San Francisco for more than 35 years. I have never handled a criminal case (not even a parking ticket), but I’ve written twelve best-selling novels about murder trials. I like to tell people that I’m a fraud on multiple levels.
Where do you write? What, if any, distractions do you allow? When I was practicing law full time, I used to write on a laptop computer on the ferry between Marin County and my firm’s office in San Francisco. I no longer work full-time, so I do most of my writing at home in the spare bedroom in our house. It’s a great luxury to be able to write almost full-time.
Tell us about your writing process: I start with a light outline. It helps me to know the beginning and the ending. I write a series, so I know that the books will feature Mike Daley and Rosie Fernandez and will be set in San Francisco. I outline in greater detail about 50 pages ahead of wherever I am in the story. I try to write to the end of the outline, and then I outline another 50 pages. I generally try to write straight through from beginning to end, but I sometimes skip ahead and write the ending. I spend about 50 percent of my time on the first 100 pages because if I make a mistake in the early part of the book, I’ll pay for it later. Once I get to the midway point in the book, I don’t stop until I get to the end. I tend to write long and cut. I usually do at least six full drafts. The first draft takes about eight months, the second about two months. The remaining drafts take a couple of weeks.
What is the most challenging part of your writing process? I’m self-taught, so I find plotting to be challenging. First drafts are more difficult than second and third drafts. There’s nothing scarier than looking at a blank sheet of paper. Once I have something in the computer, I know that I can go back and fix it.
Has an association membership helped you or your writing? I have been a member of MWA, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers for years. I served on the national board of MWA and as the president of the Northern California Chapter years. These organizations provide a supportive environment for writers since we spend so much of our time in front of our computers.
How long did it take you to write your first book? It took three years. I had the idea for my first book, Special Circumstances, for about ten years before I started writing it. I took one creative writing class at Book Passage in Corte Madera, which was very helpful. Then I worked on the book in short increments on my commute to work and late at night.
How long to get it published? I got very lucky. When I finished the manuscript for my first book, I was introduced to an agent who was friends with one of the attorneys at our law firm. She agreed to read the manuscript as a favor to my colleague. The agent liked the manuscript and agreed to represent me. She submitted it to multiple houses in New York, and they liked it. Two weeks later, I had a two-book deal with Bantam for a six-figure advance. The chances that this would happen again are one in a million, so I am very grateful.
We hear of strong-willed characters. Do yours behave, or do they run the show? My characters have minds of their own. At times, I feel like I’m just a stenographer. That’s why my outlines are so light—my characters tend to misbehave, and they rarely follow the plotline that I’ve started.
Do you try to make the antagonist into a more human character? Yes. Good guys are interesting when they have flaws, and bad guys are interesting if they have some positive elements. Characters who are all good or all bad are one-dimensional.
Do you have any advice for new writers? Read a lot and write a lot. Work on your craft so that you can make your story as good as it can be. It’s fine to read a few books about writing, but it’s better to spend your time writing than reading books about writing. I would recommend Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and On Writing by Stephen King.